Hot Under the Collar
Aiden was going to do it. He was going to talk to Kellen in class. He shouldn’t have been nervous about this, but he was. He couldn’t help it. He also couldn’t help the unfortunate noise of his stomach as he sat in English class that morning with his arms crossed over it in a futile effort to get it to stop hurting.
“Dude, are you okay?”
Aiden jumped as the rest of his teammates sat down. The three of them knew Aiden felt a little off sometimes, but Aiden never told them the extent of his anxiety and how it manifested. The whole thing was far too embarrassing to bring up anyway.
He gave them a slight smile. “Just fine. We’re starting our next book today, right?”
They were good distractions for the few minutes before class started. Aiden ended up so preoccupied that he only noticed Kellen when he turned back to the front of the room.
He cursed himself. He’d wanted to talk to Kellen before class began. Just a simple hello would have been enough!
But Mrs. Andrews had already started talking. Aiden zoned out. He didn’t mean to, but his mind was whirling with all the things he could say to Kellen at the end of class. Aiden was starting to regret his whole life as his stomach twisted again.
He blinked in surprise when people started moving around, feeling distinctly confused. Familiar laughter sounded out behind him before Kellen filled the desk next to him, the one a teammate had just gotten out of.
“Your thoughts must be really interesting,” Kellen commented with a chuckle. “We’re in groups to talk about the book. We’re missing a person in my usual group, so you’re with us today.”
They were in groups of four, and since Aiden hadn’t been paying attention, his three friends ended up with the girl one of them had a crush on. She didn’t look too upset about it. Aiden wasn’t either. Two other kids joined them, but all Aiden could focus on were Kellen’s long legs that were extended out from his desk and the animated quality he had when he read his parts in their play. It took a lot of effort to ask his brain to work so the other boy didn’t think he was a moron with only baseball on his mind.
“Hey, I’ll see you in the pep rally this afternoon too,” Kellen said as they stood up to leave. “They always make all the sports teams come up, right?”
Aiden found those awkward. While it was nice to be recognized for their hard work, he literally stood up there for a minute, said his name into the mic that some student council member stuck in his face, and sat back down after someone hyped up the audience.
Something of his thoughts must have showed on his face as Kellen gave him a sympathetic smile. “I’ll cheer for you when your name is called,” he said in between laughs.
“Oh my god, no,” Aiden said with red ears and a kind smile. “I don’t think I can handle that kind of attention.”
“Yet you pitch a ball in the literal center of the field,” Kellen mused. He smiled brightly as the other kids started filing out. The two of them filed out behind them. This time, Aiden’s attention was fully occupied by Kellen; he hadn’t even noticed his teammates leave when Kellen kept talking, “Well, give me a cheer then. I’ll be dancing with the team.”
That’s right; the dance team always did a little something, along with the cheerleaders, sometimes theater if they had a singing piece, and maybe show choir. Aiden wondered how long Kellen had been on the dance team; he’d seen the team dance at assemblies multiple times, but he had never noticed Kellen there before.
Aiden was suddenly feeling much more excited about the assembly than he’d been a few minutes ago. “This time I’ll get to watch you in a non-creepy way.”
The bad joke got Kellen to laugh that barking laugh, which only led to Aiden laughing to himself again. It got worse when Aiden snorted and Kellen doubled over clutching his stomach. “You’re going to kill me,” Kellen said with tears in his eyes, a wide smile on his face as he kept laughing, leaning against the wall now.
“Stop laughing,” Aiden commanded unconvincingly, still laughing himself. “I can’t stop laughing if you don’t stop.”
Kellen covered his mouth and shook his head, patting Aiden on the shoulder in a “see you later” kind of gesture before he walked off. Aiden smiled after him, feeling his ears go red when he noticed some people looking at him. He couldn’t bring himself to feel too bad about it though, not when the memory of Kellen’s laughs kept him smiling until the assembly.
That assembly was the first time Aiden had seen Kellen dance. It stuck in his memory: Kellen’s sharp movements, the music reverberating in the gym, the squeak of their shoes on the gymnasium floor. Aiden hadn’t been able to tear his eyes away.
While his teammates pointed out the girls that they liked best, Aiden kept his attention focused on Kellen from the moment the other boy stepped up with his team. Their captain said a few words before they all took their positions around the gym. Aiden felt his heart beat nervously for Kellen. It wasn’t that he doubted Kellen’s dancing skills, but he had never seen what the other boy could do.
He shouldn’t have been worried. When the music started, Kellen jumped into action. Aiden couldn’t really tell if there were any slip ups, but he figured it didn’t matter as he smiled the entire time that he watched. Kellen’s movements were fluid yet sharp as he did a large choreographed dance with his team.
Aiden clapped loudly when they finished. Kellen somehow found his gaze amidst the crowd and sent him a tired but winning smile. Aiden knew his ears were red. But no one was paying attention to him.
He smiled back, saying nothing when Kellen ran back up the bleacher stairs to return to his seat and patted him kindly on the back. It was such a simple gesture, something no one would usually think twice about.
But when Kellen did it, Aiden couldn’t quite think past what it would feel like if Kellen kept his hands on him for longer.
It may have taken Aiden some time to accept and understand the fact that he was gay, but he wasn’t a moron. It didn’t take him long at all to realize that he might just have a slight crush on Kellen.
Aiden’s head was in the clouds. It had been like that ever since he saw Kellen again. The moment he got home that day after dropping Nikki off, he’d collapsed onto his bed and stared up at the ceiling. His heart was still beating quickly.
While his heart had calmed down in the next few days, his head was still somewhere else entirely. That was Kellen. He’d talked with Kellen again after convincing himself for years that he’d made the right choice and would never see his ex again. Now the only thing on his mind was the smile on Kellen’s face when he danced and the brief memory of what it felt like to have his hands on the other man’s hips again.
Aiden groaned. He knew he couldn’t keep thinking about Kellen like this. They weren’t dating anymore.
That didn’t mean his feelings had disappeared. Seeing Kellen again had brought all those feelings that he’d been trying to forget and bury right to the surface. It reminded Aiden of all the fun they’d had together, and how stupid he’d been to give it all up because he was worried that long distance wouldn’t work, or that being gay would harm his chances of being a professional.
It all seemed silly now, but then again, Aiden had achieved his dreams. He only wished that he hadn’t had to say goodbye to someone he really cared about to do it.
Aiden jumped when someone touched his cheek, stepping back. He blinked at Lyla, who wore a mischievous look that was characteristic of her. Aiden exhaled, leaning back against the kitchen counter in Ian’s apartment. “Jeez, Lyla, you scared me,” he said, his hand over his chest.
Lyla smiled to herself. The piercing in her nose glinted for a second. “I wasn’t exactly subtle. Something on your mind?”
When she said she wasn’t subtle, she was right. Isaac had been dating her for a few years now, but it was Lyla who asked him out. The woman was blunt with a loud personality that was a perfect match for Isaac. She was always full of energy, making her the perfect aunt for Nikki too. The only time Aiden had ever seen her down was when her mother passed away. He didn’t know all the details, but he did know that Isaac dropped everything to be with her. The two of them definitely cared about one another even if they were the goofiest couple Aiden had ever met.
“It’s nothing,” Aiden said unconvincingly. He couldn’t tell anyone about Kellen; that’s what made everything so much worse. Even after all these years, he was still hiding.
Lyla didn’t look convinced at all. “You’re a horrible liar. How are you related to Isaac?”
“I don’t know either,” Aiden commented dryly. He leaned over to check on the noodles he’d been tasked with keeping an eye on. With Aiden back in town, the brothers had decided to do dinner every week or two as a way to keep in touch. Nikki was beyond excited to have him over, even if she had to do her homework with Letta’s help at the moment.
Lyla rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to tell me. But it looks like it’s really eating at you. I know we tend to only see one another when you’re in town, but I’m always around.”
Lyla was the type that never had a problem admitting that she cared about someone. In that moment, Aiden was grateful, although he didn’t know how to tell the truth without revealing any actual details.
With a frown on his face and his gaze securely focused on the noodles, Aiden admitted only part of the truth. “I feel a little like the fifth wheel with you guys sometimes. I love being here and I love being the one to play with Nikki, don’t get me wrong, but I guess I get a little lonely.”
It was true that Kellen was the biggest thing on his mind in that moment, but seeing Kellen again had brought up more than just old feelings. Aiden had started imagining what it would be like to bring the other man to one of these dinners, or to have a night in with him. He had prompted Aiden to more seriously consider the lonely pangs he felt every now and again when someone brought up potential girlfriends.
“That’s understandable,” Lyla said easily, crossing her arms. “I guess you don’t have any girls you’re interested in?”
“No,” Aiden said quickly, probably too quickly. He cleared his throat. “I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want you guys to feel bad for me. It’s okay, really. I just feel like I’m intruding on couple’s night sometimes.”
Lyla made a sympathetic noise. “Can’t feel much better when Ian or Letta gets Nikki into bed and it’s only the five of us.”
Aiden shrugged. It made him feel left out here and there, but that was to be expected. He’d been away for a while and they’d established a routine without him. He couldn’t begrudge them for his own choice to follow his dreams elsewhere.
“It’s not a big deal,” he settled on saying. “Don’t say anything?”
“Not a problem,” Lyla responded immediately.
Aiden was thankful that Isaac chose that moment to reenter. “Oh my god, do you know what they give her for homework? She’s seven and they have her working on division. Did we do that kind of shit when we were seven?”
“I’m pretty sure you failed out of everything until you were twelve,” Aiden deadpanned.
Isaac scoffed. “On purpose. School doesn’t count until you’re older anyway. I mean, as long as you know the stuff. Otherwise it’s like being thrown into math problems with the damn letters without knowing regular math.” He shrugged, going over to stand with his arm around Lyla’s hip.
It wasn’t a rare sight. He and Ian did that with Lyla and Letta all the time. But Lyla still frowned, probably realizing how often they did it after what Aiden just told her.
Aiden gave her a look, imploring her not to say anything and not to be weird about it. She huffed, but she was a woman of her word.
“Something wrong?” Isaac asked her.
“Nothing at all,” Lyla responded too easily. “Aiden and I were talking about the last ball that hit him in a game. How long did the bruise last for again?”
They had talked about that at some point, so it wasn’t a complete lie. It lightened the conversation for a while as they all sat down to dinner. Aiden had Nikki on his lap half the time; even after almost two weeks of him being there, she hadn’t gotten tired of him yet.
“So, Uncle Aiden, are you going to come see my recital tomorrow night?” she asked cheerfully, completely ignoring whatever the four others were talking about.
“Is this the one with Kellen and B or the one with your school?” Aiden tried to keep up with everything Nikki was doing, but sometimes the details got jumbled up in his head. All he knew was that Christmas was in two and a half weeks, it was currently Friday night, and Nikki had school for another week and a half before they let her off for the break.
“Tomorrow is for school,” Nikki said seriously. “I’ll do hip-hop in the afternoon and then go to the school for last-minute practice.”
She said it like she was a college student with a busy schedule. Aiden could only imagine her in high school trying to sign up for every team and still have time to study, let alone college. But he smiled at her anyway. “I’ll be there then. I’d love to see you dance. And the one with Kellen is next week?”
Nikki nodded before tilting her head. “Hey, Uncle Aiden? Do you know Mr. K?”
Aiden almost choked at the sudden question, even if he was the one who brought up Kellen’s name. Everyone else at the table turned to look at him. Ian patted him on the back. “You alright?” his oldest brother asked.
“Fine,” Aiden said with a scratchy voice. Nikki was still looking at him, obviously expecting an answer. He cleared his throat. “Kellen and I had English together in high school. He used to be on the dance team.”
Nikki’s eyes got wide. “Oh my god, you knew Mr. K? Oh, that’s so cool.” She sounded sincerely amazed. Aiden had to wonder what she would sound like if he and Kellen were still together.
He squashed that thought. Aiden gave Nikki a smile that he hoped wasn’t too sad. “It is, isn’t it?”
When Aiden looked back up, he noticed Lyla staring at him with an interesting expression. For a moment, his heart sped up. But no, she couldn’t have figured it out just from that small interaction. There’s no way that she knew he still had feelings for Kellen, or that he was gay. Lyla was shrewd, but she wasn’t a mind reader.
Or maybe she was. She was the one who was supposed to bring Nikki to the dance studio for her hip-hop class, but she’d been up all night working on a sudden editing job. That’s what she’d said anyway. Lyla worked for a university, editing and advising people on their CVs, resumes, and research proposals, so it wasn’t exactly odd that she worked on them during odd hours. That being said, Aiden knew that university employees didn’t work on the weekends.
He didn’t question her too hard about it. Truth be told, Aiden was looking for an excuse to see Kellen again, even if it was only for the few minutes after Nikki’s class.
He sighed to himself. Yeah, he had it bad. Aiden huffed as he walked through the snow, the cold wind practically slapping him in the face with every step. By the time he made it to the studio, he was shivering even in his heavy jacket. His hands were so red from the cold that he could barely feel them.
Aiden huffed, rubbing his cold hands together as he stomped his feet on the welcome mat and stepped in further. Olivia offered him a smile from her place behind the desk. Once again, her glasses glinted in the light. “You a regular now?”
“P-pretty much,” Aiden shivered. “It’s the off season now, so I don’t mind walking Nikki wherever she needs to go.”
Olivia looked at him over the top of her screen, looking confused for a second before realization hit. “Oh, right: baseball. Not much of a fan myself.” She nodded to herself like that made sense.
But there was one issue: “If you’re not a fan, then how did you know I play?” Aiden asked. He rubbed his hands together again, trying to get the feeling back in his fingers.
“Oh, Kellen pays attention to that stuff. I don’t think he really watches, but he’s always got your games running in the background when he’s at home,” Olivia said flippantly, smiling victoriously to herself as she fixed up something on the computer and grabbed a cord from her desk. She went on, obviously not paying attention to her words, “I think he watched you in the minors too? I don’t know, but I remember seeing your name around for more than just this year.”
Aiden blinked. Kellen… watched his games? But Kellen had never been a huge baseball fan. He’d admitted years ago that he only watched Aiden practice because it was Aiden. And now Kellen watched his games. Kellen had even watched him before he got into the majors. He’d been following Aiden’s baseball career this whole time.
The thought made Aiden feel warm all over. Even if Kellen wasn’t mad or didn’t hate him, Aiden hadn’t expected the other man to actually want to watch him play. He couldn’t help but to think back to every time he pitched. Kellen was on the other side of some television screen in his house watching him like he used to when they were in high school.
His heart beat even faster and his ears got red. Well, Aiden was certainly warm enough now.
He took a deep breath. He shouldn’t read too much into this. It was hard not to though, not when he knew that Kellen didn’t particularly like baseball in the first place. But he didn’t dare consider what that might mean. If he started thinking that Kellen still had feelings for him too, Aiden didn’t think he’d ever be able to go back.
“Uncle Aiden!” The call snapped him out of his stupor. Aiden smiled as Nikki came bounding up as usual. Right away, she said with a smile, “I invited Mr. K and B and Olivia to come with us to see me dance!”
It took his mind a second to catch up with her boundless energy. Olivia clearly caught on faster as she made an interested noise. “Oh, me too?”
“Of course,” Nikki said kindly. “Can you come then?”
Olivia tilted her head. “Well, we don’t have anyone on the schedule for tonight. Sure, I can come watch. Hey, what school do you go to?”
Aiden watched Nikki give Olivia the details, the older woman writing down all the information on a notepad she kept up front with her. He was smiling fondly at the sight of the two of them. He hadn’t even noticed Kellen sidling up next to him until the other man spoke.
“I’m kind of excited to go see some of my students in the school performance. You’d never know all the stress that goes into those from watching,” Kellen said with a light chuckle.
Aiden didn’t feel quite so nervous around Kellen this time, even though he was distinctly aware of the line of sweat on the other man’s neck. “Yours is next week, right?”
Kellen gave him a sidelong look. “Yeah, it’ll be our students. We’ve got them separated into different groups for skill and style. Should be interesting, and lots of fun too.”
“What about you and B? You guys won’t be dancing?” Aiden hoped that the disappointment in his voice didn’t shine through.
Kellen smirked playfully. “We’d like to. We’ve actually been working on a routine outside using pieces of the city as our props. It’s still a work in progress, but B and I have a surprise in mind. It’s a little corny,” he shrugged. “It’s always fun to dance in public though.” He winked, his laugh like a tiny bark again.
“B’s the type to dance in public?” Aiden asked as he chuckled along. He couldn’t quite imagine the tattooed woman fooling around like Kellen, although she already taught ballet; it was best not to judge her too soon.
Kellen’s face broke out into a wide smile. “I bring the energy and she brings the attitude,” he responded with a little twist in place, coupled with a laugh.
Aiden realized that he didn’t feel nervous around Kellen at all in that moment. He smiled happily, impressed as always with the man. He could throw a baseball with thousands of people watching, but he couldn’t imagine dancing in public. Kellen was a brave man.
When Nikki turned back to Aiden to get going to her school, Aiden said to Kellen, “See you at the school later?”
Kellen’s expression softened minutely. It was that same warm expression he wore so many times when they were kids. “See you later, Aiden.”
Aiden shivered at that tone in Kellen’s voice. He convinced himself that it was because Nikki had opened the door and it was time to go back into the cold again.